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Latin American Immigration to Southern Europe

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Latin American Immigration to Southern Europe

Historical patterns linking different regions of the globe continue to be relevant. The situation of former empires is, perhaps, the best studied example. Typically, citizens from former colonies tend to be overrepresented in flows to the countries that colonized them. For example, South Asians were the largest group in the United Kingdom in the 2001 UK census.

Although Spain and Portugal colonized much of Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), recent immigrants from LAC countries have mainly headed north to the United States and Canada. Among the 15.6 million individuals born in Latin America who currently reside in an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Member State, around 13.5 million (86 percent) live in the United States. The figure is similar for the Caribbean born.

Though less dominant, LAC migration to Southern Europe — which includes Spain, Portugal, and Italy — reflects colonial and historical patterns, including mass European migration to Latin America in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

However, LAC migration to Europe is also the result of continuing economic challenges in LAC countries and changes in the economies of Southern Europe as well as these countries' favorable visa and dual-citizenship policies. Stricter U.S. visa requirements and U.S. border controls since September 11, 2001 have also helped redirect flows. Consequently, it is not surprising that Southern Europe is the most popular European destination for LAC emigrants, as statistical analysis shows.

Historical Background

Latin American migration to Europe can be categorized into various historical waves: colonial and post-colonial migrations, which started in the 19th century and lasted until recently; political-exile migration during the authoritarian wave in Latin America (1960 to 1990); and contemporary waves of economic migration.

During the late-19th and early-20th centuries, millions of Europeans migrated to Latin America. According to historian Jose Moya, between 1820 and 1932, more than 6 millions Europeans migrated to Argentina and more than 4 million to Brazil. These flows, originating mainly from Spain, Italy, and Portugal, lasted for several decades. Other Europeans, such as Germans, Poles, and Ukrainians, migrated as well although in smaller numbers.

The reasons for this movement are similar to those that spurred migration to the United States and Canada during the same time period: labor needs and high salaries in conjunction with proactive immigration policies in the New World, and poverty and demographic growth in the Old World.

In addition, Latin American states widely advertised the benefits of migration, such as access to land and high salaries, to Europeans. Brazil in particular saw European immigration as a way to "whiten" its population once slavery was abolished.

For Spain and Portugal, the colonial era ended in the early-19th century, with most of their Latin American possessions receiving independence between 1810 and 1830; other countries in the region gained independence from their European rulers after World War II. Later in the 19th and early-20th centuries, a significant number of Spanish and Portuguese emigrants returned, after either failing or succeeding in making money; the returnees were named "Indians" (indianos) in Spain and "Brazilians" (brasileiros) in Portugal.

Much later, as Latin American political refugees sought safety from dictatorships at home, migration flows from LAC to Europe diversified in terms of both origin and destination countries. The United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Spain, and Portugal all became popular destinations mainly for Chileans, Argentineans, Uruguayans, and Brazilians between the 1960s and the 1980s. Many of those who left Latin America were highly educated and were able to find jobs in their new countries.

In addition to the political refugees, Spain and Portugal also received thousands of highly qualified Latin American immigrants during the 1980s.

Spain benefited from the arrival of dentists from Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, for example, while well-educated Brazilians, in industries such as marketing and health care, came to Portugal. At that time, immigration policies in Spain and Portugal were very flexible and easily adapted to the needs of the labor market. These skilled immigrants also provided invaluable technical knowledge as the two countries prepared to join the European Union (then the European Economic Community) in 1986.

Reasons for Contemporary LAC-to-Southern Europe Migration

More recently, the majority of immigrants from LAC in Southern Europe have been economic migrants leaving South America for a more prosperous Southern Europe. Today, Spain, Portugal, and Italy are no longer emigration countries but destination countries. The reasons for these new flows are varied.

From the standpoint of the origin countries, the "push" factors for out-migration, which have existed for several decades, intensified. These include high unemployment and underemployment rates, political instabilities, and the weakening of the welfare state, which has meant a decrease in social-services spending, among other reasons.

In Southern Europe, deep economic changes began in the 1980s. After joining the EU, Spain and Portugal experienced strong economic growth. Global-level restructuring in economic and labor markets affected all of Southern Europe. LAC countries helped fill the new demand, first for skilled and then for less-skilled labor.

Partly because the formal economy is so highly regulated in Spain, Portugal, and Italy, the informal economy, which has a long tradition in Southern Europe, gained a more important role as the demand for labor increased. Consequently, the use of irregular migrants increased. These migrants work in construction, agriculture, hospice, catering, and cleaning, often in positions natives do not fill.

The recent growth of traditionally feminine labor niches, such as domestic care for the elderly and domestic and industrial cleaning, is a particular pull factor for immigrant women, feminizing some LAC immigrant communities in the region.

The colonial connections between LAC and Southern European countries consolidated the flows. In addition to some cultural similarities, language is the colonial era's main legacy. Spanish is spoken in most of the South and Central American countries as well as in Mexico; Portuguese is spoken in Brazil; and the various Caribbean island nations also adopted the languages of their former colonial masters.

Present Links

The special relationship among LAC and Southern European countries continues in many forms.

First, Spain and Portugal have worked to create an Ibero-American community of nations. In addition to some privileged diplomatic links, its main function is an annual meeting of heads of state.

Second, Latin American citizens have long been exempted from needing tourist visas to enter Spain and Portugal. This exemption is still valid in the EU framework, including the Schengen space, which allows for free movement between most EU countries (see related article for more on Schengen), for individuals coming from the Southern Cone and Brazil.

Because so many Ecuadorians became unauthorized migrants, however, Spain began requiring visas for Ecuadorians in 2003. And, since March 2007, Bolivians also have been required to obtain visas. These decisions have caused diplomatic embarrassment for Spain.

Third, Portugal has signed various special agreements with Brazil that grant additional political rights to Brazilians in Portugal and to Portuguese in Brazil. Portugal also launched a special regularization program for unauthorized Brazilian immigrants in 2003.

Fourth, Spain's main partners in bilateral labor recruitment programs are LAC countries. Spain has gone beyond traditional labor programs by recently recruiting soldiers of Spanish descent in Uruguay and Argentina.

Fifth, policies that permit dual citizenship as well as citizenship based on ancestry (jus sanguinis) have allowed the descendants of many emigrants to come legally to Europe. For example, a citizen of Argentina who can prove the Italian citizenship of a grandfather is likely eligible for Italian citizenship. Spain, Portugal, and Italy are home an unknown number of LAC dual citizens, who may live and work in any EU Member State.


Determining the number of LAC immigrants in Southern European countries requires data that can be compared across countries.

Some of the available data are from Eurostat, the European statistical agency, which compiles statistics reported to it from all EU Member States. Other data at the European level are collected by OECD and the Council of Europe, which also base their statistics on national-level data.

Unfortunately, these national statistics are barely comparable due to systematic differences in sources and concepts. Furthermore, some countries use more than one source to estimate similar groups, producing figures that do not match. For instance, data on foreign nationals may be based on census data but could also come from municipal registers.

The analysis here uses different data sets. Data based on citizenship, which came from the Council of Europe, were comparable for most European host nations. The best source for looking at the foreign born was a comparative study produced in the OECD framework. To examine Southern European countries in more detail, official national-level data from Spain, Portugal, and Italy were used.

It is important to note that all these statistics most likely underestimate the LAC presence in Europe, and Southern Europe in particular, because they do not include unauthorized immigrants or LAC nationals possessing a legal status other than a residence permit (e.g., holders of long-term visas, such as foreign students). The number of Latin Americans who are holders of dual citizenship is also considerable, although they are usually counted in statistics based on place of birth (i.e, the foreign born).

Unauthorized immigrants in particular are notoriously difficult to count; however, there are methods to circumvent the challenge. Spain, for example, permits individuals not holding a residence permit to register at the municipal level (padrón). The use of this latter source would significantly enlarge the size of Spain's LAC community. In the case of Portugal, the inclusion of Brazilians who applied for special regularization processes, in 2003 and 2004, would significantly increase its official number of LAC nationals.

LAC Immigrants in Europe: A Statistical Analysis

Using citizenship-based data, Southern European countries are by far the most popular destinations (see Table 1).

In terms of absolute numbers, Spain hosts the largest LAC-national population with just over 1 million individuals, including those legalized during the 2005 amnesty. Italy lags behind, with 205,000 LAC nationals, followed distantly by the United Kingdom (113,000) and Germany (94,000). Portugal, which has experienced immigration only recently, hosts a smaller number (56,000).

Table 1. Latin American and Caribbean Foreign Population in Selected European Countries, 2005*
CountriesLatin America and the CaribbeanOther nationalitiesTotal
South AmericaCentral America
and Mexico
Belgium (b)7,9721,1021,49910,573837,823848,396
France (d)25,3573,95017,35546,6623,216,5243,263,186
Greece (a)49475217786585,258586,044
Italy (e)167,19711,59926,030204,8262,022,7412,227,567
Luxembourg (c)60145187833161,452162,285
Portugal (f)55,36638669056,442312,855369,297
Spain (g)946,11620,46198,3391,064,9161,956,8923,021,808
United Kingdom (a)42,2045,14765,430112,7812,628,6072,741,388
Belgium (b)
France (d)
Greece (a)
Italy (e)
Luxembourg (c)
Portugal (f)
Spain (g)
United Kingdom (a)
Notes: *Most data correspond to January 1, 2005, except when indicated:
(a) January 1, 2004.
(b) January 1, 2003.
(c) January 1, 2001.
(d) March 8, 1999.
(e) Residence permits/permits of stay as of January 1, 2004.
(f) Residence permits and permits of stay as of December 31, 2005.
(g) Residence permits as of December 31, 2006. The Caribbean includes Cuba, Dominican Republic, and "other countries" in Latin America.
Source: Authors' calculations based on Council of Europe, 2004 and 2005, except Italy (Istat and Ministero dell'Interno, Italy), Portugal (INE and SEF, Portugal), and Spain (INE and Ministerio de Trabajo y Asuntos Sociales, Spain).

LAC migrants' share of the total foreign population of various European countries is equally telling. Again, Spain takes the lead, with 35.2 percent of its foreign population coming from LAC countries. Next are Portugal (15.3 percent) — confirming its privileged link with the region — and Italy (9.2 percent), followed by the United Kingdom and Sweden, with around 4 percent each.

In measuring the size of the LAC community in Europe by place of birth rather than citizenship, Spain leads with 840,000 LAC foreign born, followed by the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, each with more than 300,000 individuals; France, Portugal, and Sweden follow (see Table 2). In the colonial era, the UK ruled Guyana and many Caribbean islands, and the Netherlands controlled Suriname and a handful of islands. Migration to both the UK and the Netherlands from former colonies took place in the mid- to late-20th century, accounting for LAC countries' representation in these numbers.

As a share of the total foreign-born population, the LAC foreign born make up 39 percent of Spain's total; they compose 19.5 percent of the total foreign born in the Netherlands and 11.6 percent in Portugal. Unfortunately, data for Italy is missing in this database.

Table 2. Latin American and Caribbean Foreign-Born Population in Selected European Countries by Region of Origin, 2001*
CountriesLatin America and the CaribbeanOther countries of originTotal
Latin AmericaCaribbeanTotal  
Belgium 20,3873,97624,3631,074,8321,099,195
Denmark (a)9,2087859,993351,060361,053
Finland (a)1,8172612,078129,370131,448
France (b)79,98724,836104,8235,763,4195,868,242
Germany (a)47,578...47,57810,208,50610,256,084
Ireland (c)2,7936883,481396,535400,016
Netherlands (d)221,62693,326314,9521,300,4251,615,377
Norway (e)15,1331,26816,401317,368333,769
Portugal 74,94991475,863575,609651,472
Sweden (a)59,9652,84062,8051,014,7911,077,596
United Kingdom95,357232,940328,2974,537,2664,865,563
Denmark (a)
Finland (a)
France (b)
Germany (a)0.5...0.599.5100
Ireland (c)
Netherlands (d)13.75.819.580.5100
Norway (e)
Sweden (a)
United Kingdom2.04.86.793.3100
Notes: *Most data are based on the 2001 census except when indicated:
(a) 2003 (countries with yearly registration systems).
(b) 1999.
(c) 2002.
(d) 1995 to 2000.
(e) Variable.
Source: Authors' calculations based on Dumont and Lemaître, 2005.

Disaggregating the migration flows between LAC and Southern Europe both by destination country and origin country permits more sweeping conclusions about subregional linkages.

In Spain and Portugal, the choice of destination country reflects former colonial ties. Again using citizenship-based data, in Spain, the top country of origin is Ecuador (approximately 376,000 foreign citizens), followed by Colombia (226,000), Peru (91,000), and Argentina (87,000) (see Table 3).

In Portugal, the majority of immigrants of LAC origin are Brazilians. However, counting all of them is not an easy task due to the diversity of legal status: about 50,000 hold a residence permit and about 14,000 hold visas granted by the Lula Accord (a special regularization process launched in 2003).

The only other LAC-foreign group with a significant presence in Portugal is from Venezuela, a destination country for Portuguese emigrants as well as other Southern Europeans that became more popular after World War II. While Italian and Spanish migration flows to Venezuela were heavier during the 1950s, the Portuguese flow became more relevant during the 1960s, with one-third coming from Madeira Island.

In Italy, the largest LAC-national populations are from Peru (49,000) and Ecuador (48,000), followed by Brazil (which received Italian immigrants in the late-19th and early-20th centuries), Colombia, and the Dominican Republic. Since there were no previous ties with Peru and Ecuador, LAC migrants likely go to Italy for economic reasons.

Table 3. Legally Resident Latin American and Caribbean Foreigners by Nationality in Spain, Portugal, and Italy
CountriesSpain (a)Portugal (b)Italy (c)Total
South America946,11655,366167,1971,168,679
Central America and Mexico20,46138611,59932,446
The Caribbean98,33969026,030125,059
Dominican Republic58,1267113,47571,672
Other and unknown458441,2321,734
CountriesSpain (a)Portugal (b)Italy (c)Total
South America88.898.181.688.1
Central America and Mexico1.
The Caribbean9.
Dominican Republic5.
(a) Residence permits as of December 31, 2006.
(b) Residence permits and permits of stay as of December 31, 2005.
(c) Residence permits/permits of stay as of January 1, 2004.
Source: Authors' calculations based on INE/Ministerio de Trabajo y Asuntos Sociales (Spain), INE/SEF (Portugal), and Istat/Ministero dell'Interno (Italy).

Looking Ahead

Currently, it is easier than ever for people even in remote parts of the world to learn of major events and policy changes that could affect them. From this perspective, it is not surprising that migration patterns between Latin America and Southern Europe are both evolving and continuing historical trends.

Linkages between LAC countries and Southern Europe include family, friend, and hometown networks, some operating (or at least latent) for several decades. Other networks have formed since the wave of immigration recorded during the 1990s.

Since 2001, migration has become increasingly associated with security concerns. Latin Americans in Europe are not exempt from these new stereotypes; however, cultural affinities may facilitate in bridging the divide.

The continuation of favorable policies, resulting from diverse sets of international political relations and long emigration histories, will probably reinforce the effect of migration systems and social networks in easing the flow to Southern Europe.

An earlier version of this paper was presented as an introduction to the workshop "Latin American Immigration to Southern Europe," organized by the authors in the framework of the 11th International Metropolis Conference, Lisbon, October 2006.


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